Language is universal. Or so they say. In fact, sometimes language can feel anything but consistent. When it comes to translating for business, it pays to have a professional translator.
Some businesses would do well to note this. Even brand names are not exempt from the need to research thoroughly before breaking into a new market. For example, the Chinese translation of Coca Cola was initially printed as ‘Ke-kou-ke-la’, on account that it sounded similar to the original (this is known as transliteration). It transpired that ‘Ke-kou-ke-la’ actually meant either ‘bite the wax tadpole’ or ‘female horse stuffed with wax’, depending on the dialect.
Many versions of this cautionary tale abound on the internet. It was the result of a competition gone horribly wrong according to Chinese Wikipedia, with even Coca Cola’s own historian conceding there were issues with these early Chinese translations. After a more careful translation process, considering the meaning as well as the sounds of words, Coke came up with “Ko-kou-ko-le”, which translates, somewhat more appropriately, as “happiness in the mouth”.
One typical downfall for businesses attempting to span the international markets is flagged up in the Institute of Translation and Interpreting guide to successful translation [PDF]:
“Avoid culture-bound clichés. References to your national sport may well fall flat. Ditto literary/cultural metaphors. Tread carefully with references to parts of the human body, viewed differently by different cultures.”
This warning could have saved then-Prime Minister Tony Blair from an embarrassing cultural translation blunder in 1998, when he told a group of Japanese business men that the British Government intended to go “the full Monty” in terms of strengthening the UK economy. This cultural reference was met with blank faces: the film had not yet been released in Japan. Furthermore, the notion of the British Prime Minister stripping off to cheesy music is an image that would probably not rest easily with the hosts’ cultural sensitivities…
The problem with translation is that the term is all too often taken to mean literally translating word for word into the desired language – in reality some things will always be, in a somewhat cliché truth, “lost in translation”. It is only through professional translation that you can ensure that this loss is kept to a minimum. Professional translators keep up to date with terminology, jargon and colloquialisms across a variety of subjects.
What’s more, translation is a skill. It is not enough to be bilingual, just as speaking English doesn’t automatically make you a great copywriter (myself being an exception to the rule of course!). A good professional translation needs to be written gracefully and capture the real meaning of the source text.